1. When the proofs of a fact are dependent one on anotherthat is to say, when each single proof rests on[135] the weight of some otherthen the more numerous the proofs are, the smaller is the probability of the fact in question, because the chances of error in the preliminary proofs would increase the probability of error in the succeeding ones.

It is unhappily no mere theory, that the majority of crimes are committed precisely by those who risk most in committing them; by those, that is, who commit them with the aggravated penalty full in view. By the existing law (of which both the Criminal Code- and the Penal Servitude-Commissioners have proposed the mitigation) anyone convicted of felony after a previous conviction for felony is liable to penal servitude for life, or to imprisonment with hard labour for four years, with one or more whippings. The minimum punishment for a second conviction of felony is seven years. Yet, with the knowledge of such increased punishments before their eyes, with the full consciousness of their liabilities as old offenders, official statistics show that of both the male and female convicts in the English convict prisons considerably more than half have incurred previous convictions.[50] Of the male convicts in 1878, 79 per cent.,[93] and of the female 89 per cent., were cases of reciduous crime. May it not, then, be argued from such a failure of the system to an error in the principle on which it rests? For is it not evident that the aggravated penalty does as little to deter as the original punishment does to reform?

The chief honour of the earliest attempt at law reform belongs to Sir William Meredith, who in 1770 moved for a committee of inquiry into the state of the criminal laws. This committee proposed in its report of the following year the repeal of a few Acts which made certain offences capital; and accordingly the Commons in 1772 agreed, that it should no longer be punishable as high treason to make an attempt on the life of a Privy Councillor, that desertion of officers or soldiers should no longer be capital, nor the belonging to people who called themselves Egyptians. Some other proposals were negatived, such as a repeal of the hard law of James I. against infanticide; but the House of Lords refused their assent even to the slight changes passed by the Commons. It was an innovation, they said, and subversion of the law.[34][53] It is no reproach to Meredith, Burke, and Fox that they ceased to waste their strength against Conservatism such as this. All hope of reform was out of the question; and the most dreadful atrocities were suffered or defended. In 1777 a girl of 14 lay in Newgate under sentence to be burnt alive for false coinage, because some whitewashed farthings, that were to pass for sixpences, were found on her person; and a reprieve only came just as the cart was ready to take her to the stake. Not till 1790 was the law abolished by which women were liable to be burnt publicly for high or petit treason.[35] Whatever improvement our penal laws have undergone in the last hundred years is due primarily to Beccaria, and to an extent that has not always been recognised. Lord Mansfield is said never to have mentioned his name without a sign of respect. Romilly referred to him in the very first speech he delivered in the House of Commons on the subject of law reform. And there is no English writer of that day who, in treating of the criminal law, does not refer to Beccaria.

Such are the fatal arguments employed, if not clearly, at least vaguely, by men disposed to crimes, among whom, as we have seen, the abuse of religion is more potent than religion itself. [66]

CHAPTER V. OBSCURITY OF THE LAWS. Such are the fatal arguments employed, if not clearly, at least vaguely, by men disposed to crimes, among whom, as we have seen, the abuse of religion is more potent than religion itself.

This useless prodigality of punishments, by which men have never been made any better, has driven me to examine whether the punishment of death be really useful and just in a well organised government. What kind of right can that be which men claim for the slaughter of their fellow-beings? Certainly not that right which is the source of sovereignty and of laws. For these are nothing but the sum-total of the smallest portions of individual liberty, and represent the general will, that is, the aggregate of individual wills. But who ever wished to leave to other men the option of killing him? How in the least possible sacrifice of each mans liberty can there be a sacrifice of the greatest of all goods, namely, of life? And if there could be that sacrifice, how would such a principle accord with the other, that a man is not the[170] master of his own life? Yet he must have been so, could he have given to himself or to society as a body this right of killing him.


A man cannot be called guilty before sentence has been passed on him by a judge, nor can society deprive him of its protection till it has been decided that he has broken the condition on which it was granted. What, then, is that right but one of mere might by which a judge is empowered to inflict a punishment on a citizen whilst his guilt or innocence are still undetermined? The following dilemma is no new one: either the crime is certain or uncertain; if certain, no other punishment is suitable for it than that affixed to it by law; and torture is useless, for the same reason that the criminals confession is useless. If it is uncertain, it is wrong to torture an[149] innocent person, such as the law adjudges him to be, whose crimes are not yet proved.

The second pretext for torture is its application to supposed criminals who contradict themselves under examination, as if the fear of the punishment, the uncertainty of the sentence, the legal pageantry, the majesty of the judge, the state of ignorance that is common alike to innocent and guilty, were not enough to plunge into self-contradiction both the innocent man[154] who is afraid, and the guilty man who seeks to shield himself; as if contradictions, common enough when men are at their ease, were not likely to be multiplied, when the mind is perturbed and wholly absorbed in the thought of seeking safety from imminent peril.

It may be asked, How far was Beccaria the first to protest against the cruelty and absurdity of torture? To this it must be replied that although actually he was not the first, he was the first to do so with effect. The difference between previous writers on the subject and Beccaria is the difference between a man whose ideas are in advance of those of his age and a man who raises the ideas of his age to a level with his[31] own. So early as the sixteenth century Montaigne, in his Essay on Conscience, had said plainly enough that the putting a man to the rack was rather a trial of patience than of truth; that pain was as likely to extort a false confession as a true one; and that a judge, by having a man racked that he might not die innocent, caused him to die both innocent and racked. Also Grevius Clivensis wrote a work whilst in prison in Amsterdam, in which he sought to prove that torture was iniquitous, fallacious, and unchristian.[17] This was published in 1624; and nearly a century later a Jesuit, Spee, wrote against the use of torture, as also against the cruel practices in force against witches.[18] And in later days Montesquieu, twenty years before Beccaria, had gone so far as to say that, since a civilised nation like England had abandoned torture without evil consequences, it was therefore unnecessary; but he followed the subject to no definite conclusion.

The more speedily and the more nearly in connection with the crime committed punishment shall follow, the more just and useful it will be. I say more just, because a criminal is thereby spared those useless and fierce torments of suspense which are all the greater in a person of vigorous imagination and fully conscious of his own weakness; more just also, because the privation of liberty, in itself a punishment, can only precede the sentence by the shortest possible interval compatible with the requirements of necessity. Imprisonment, therefore, is simply the safe custody of a citizen pending the verdict of his guilt; and this custody, being essentially disagreeable, ought to be as brief and easy as possible. The shortness of the time should be measured both by the necessary length of the preparations for the trial and by the seniority of claim to a judgment. The strictness of confinement should be no more than is necessary either for the prevention of escape or for guarding against the concealment of the proof of crimes. The trial itself should be finished in the shortest time possible. What contrast[186] more cruel than that between a judges ease and a defendants anguish? between the comforts and pleasures of an unfeeling magistrate on the one hand, and the tears and wretchedness of a prisoner on the other? In general, the weight of a punishment and the consequence of a crime should be as efficacious as possible for the restraint of other men and as little hard as possible for the individual who is punished; for one cannot call that a proper form of society, where it is not an infallible principle, that its members intended, in constituting it, to subject themselves to as few evils as possible.

Such was legal opinion generally as expressed by its ablest representatives with respect to the due punishment for pocket-picking not a hundred years ago. It is easy now to smile at such errors, and, at the barren waste of wisdom spent in their defence, but what weight after that can be attached, on subjects of the general policy of the law, to the opinion of its chief professors? Can it be too much regretted that Lord Chief Justice Ellenborough should have sacrificed to his own authority, whilst alive, the authority of all judges ever destined to succeed him?

Adultery is a crime which, politically considered, derives its force and direction from two causes, namely, from the variable laws in force among mankind, and from that strongest of all attractions which draws one sex towards the other.[70]